Roma v Athletic Bilbao talking points: Midfield under the microscope

Roma came from behind twice to draw 2-2 with Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday night, in what was probably their toughest test of pre-season so far.

After Iker Muniain had put the Basque club ahead with a poacher’s finish, Aleksandar Kolarov pulled things level in the second half with an extraordinary free kick from 30 yards out. Late on, each side converted a penalty, with Raul Garcia scoring for the visitors and Lorenzo Pellegrini coolly dispatching a spot kick which had been incorrectly awarded to Roma, after the ball had actually come into contact with Nicolo Zaniolo’s hand, rather than an opponent’s.


Although still just a friendly, there were some warning signs for Paulo Fonseca to pick up on before the Serie A campaign kicks off.

Over-commitment to playing out from the back

Fonseca’s philosophy is starting to become more and more apparent, with the coach clearly favouring an approach which sees his side play out from the back. However, there needs to be some flexibility. Often, Roma put themselves under pressure by starting too deep, with Athletic ready to pounce by deploying several players in the Giallorossi half. The new rule which states that the ball does not have to go out of the box from a goal kick worked against Roma in some regards, as it invited the La Liga side to press them higher up the pitch. Fonseca wants to see Roma play a courageous game, and that’s a good thing, but the players need to fine-tune things a little more if his style is to be successful.

Roma slow to spot the switch

When Roma got in more advanced positions, the possession-based game still lacked the appropriate dynamism. Often a full-back or winger would be open on the opposite side of the pitch, but the ball rarely travelled straight to them. Instead, Roma got the ball out wide via another player in between, which slowed down the pace – and thus reduced the danger – of the attack, by allowing Athletic to get across into the correct defensive positions more easily. Someone in the midfield needs to be brave enough to pick out the switch, skipping out that extra pass, so that Roma can play on the front foot.

No closer to a striker solution

If someone had suggested at the start of the summer that Gregoire Defrel would have been starting a pre-season game as Roma’s sole centre-forward just over two weeks before the campaign got underway, they would have sounded ridiculous. However, that was the case, and the Frenchman continued to struggle. In fairness, he was committed, but he lacks the clinical edge to be a Roma player.

When Edin Dzeko came on in the second half, it was fitting for him to be given a warm reception by his fans, with plenty of cheers and chants in his honour. Who knows if it was Dzeko’s last outing for Roma, as a move to Inter gets closer, but the directors really need to consider how they can replace the Bosnian – or if they can at all – if he does depart. Unless Roma can somehow pull off a coup and sign someone of Mauro Icardi’s stature, the names that have been linked are unappealing, and sooner or later the club need to think if getting rid of Dzeko would be a wise idea after all.

How Fonseca is using Pellegrini

After returning late for pre-season due to international duty, Lorenzo Pellegrini finally got his opportunity to play a full 90 minutes, and it was a performance of highs and lows. For the most part, the Roman was successful, playing positive passes and showing high energy. However, there was a 20-minute spell at the end of the first half when he veered away from his usual standards. Later on, he was also to blame for the second goal, as he wasn’t strong enough when turning away from his box – leading to him being dispossessed, and Roma consequently giving away a penalty due to Gianluca Mancini’s hand-ball.

Pellegrini has been utilised as part of the deeper central midfield pairing by Fonseca, where it appears he will continue to play. Some of his better performances last season came as a trequartista, in the number 10 role, but that position already has Zaniolo, Javier Pastore and maybe even Mirko Antonucci competing for it. Pellegrini can adapt well to the deeper role, as it should allow him to get on the ball more and dictate play, but he needs to stay sharp for 90 minutes.

The first signs that Roma will miss De Rossi

Extending things further, it wasn’t just Pellegrini who blew hot and cold in the midfield. Amadou Diawara was sloppier than in previous displays, for example – while Steven Nzonzi didn’t travel with the squad. There was no drive in the middle of the park to push Roma on, and this moment was going to come soon enough: It was clear they missed someone like Daniele De Rossi.

Of course, they don’t make players like De Rossi any more, but how Roma could have done with him against Bilbao. The midfield is such a critical area, which needs someone to hold it together and to drive what happens in front. Bryan Cristante came closest to replicating that on Wednesday, being more confident on the ball, but he has some way to go to reach the levels that De Rossi consistently did for most of his career – even last season. Roma have other priorities, but perhaps a reinforcement is needed for that position too. Now, if only there had been someone fully committed to the club who could have performed that role to a high standard for this team…

Player Ratings: Mirante 5; Florenzi 7; Mancini 5; Jesus 7; Spinazzola 6; Diawara 6; Pellegrini 7; Under 6; Antonucci 5; Perotti 5; Defrel 6
Subs: Lopez 6; Santon 6; Fazio 7; Kolarov 7; Cristante 8; Zaniolo 5; Kluivert 6; Dzeko 6

Man of the Match: Cristante

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